Monuments at STAGES Is Built to Laugh … and Blow Your Mind

There is so much to adore about this smart, savage and hilarious play. Like a kaleidoscope, it kept clicking into place, but then one of its never-ending supply of surprises would twist the kaleidoscope yet again, usually accompanied by a big outburst of laughter from the audience. 

I kept waiting for the play-within-the-play to start or for the dream to become lucid or for everyone to wake up. But so deftly does writer and director Steve Spehar (and dramaturge Joel Beers, the Weekly's theater critic) keep the audience wrapped up in this shifting world, always reminding us, as the characters remind themselves, to play it like a dream when in doubt, that we eventually think we have a better handle on things than the characters do and can let go and watch them discover what we think we already know. We feel we are in on it. But what is it? 

Several times we hear that a dream only has meaning for the dreamer. In Monuments, that notion isn't necessarily so . . .  But let's say the dreamer is Mann, Henry Mann (a formidable Matt Tully). He's a man who wants to make a comeback; he says he wants to create the greatest play about death ever. He is a megalomaniac asshole. And all the other characters tell him so, which is very fun for the audience. But Mann lies. His comeback is all vengeance. He fancies himself the greatest director of that master of illusion Jean Genet, but his rehearsals are the lamest thing ever: Mann screams at the top of his lungs, “EVER HEARD OF EXPERIMENTAL THEATER?” His fears about his ability to make a comeback reveal him to be the most clueless director of this or any century, confirmation that this is a dream in the form of a director's nightmare. Yet he's willing to keep going, to take the risk. To step into the spotlight—or is it the light at the end of the tunnel? 

So we have in Monuments a play-in-the-making about death, dreaming, life, love, theater, illusion. What could be better? All that in the hands of a skillful ensemble, capable of playing every theatrical style or state of being called for. Since the time of Moliere, has the use of multiple doors onstage ever been so kick-ass? The married director and leading lady seduction scene is a meta-theatrical marvel of physical comedy. Gabriel is banging away offstage, like the unseen Revolution in Genet's The Balcony, and the longer he spends building the set the more things fall apart. But you don't need an MFA in theater to love this play, just a willingness to play along. 

While the characters' names are biblical references, they are ever so much more than that. As Marion Mann, Terri Mowrey is especially good at navigating the layers of freak-out, comedy and depth needed to play “the wife.” Darri Kristin is a diabolical match for Mann as Eva, wearer of the same blouse repeated in every color. Britt Dawson is quite a presence as Gabriel; Paul Burt nails the range of Gabriel, too. Melisa Cole is a treasure as Maria, and Frank Tryon, though his line flubs were noticeable, has excellent comic timing and a great rapport with Tully's Mann, whose willingness to allow the audience to revel in the blows to his character's monstrous, monumental ego is crucial to the play.

When Monuments doesn't seem fully realized is in the first act: The yelling is too much for too long and it gets old. The set change from living room to the empty theater (in which we sit, which is cool) and back to the living room, while efficient, happens way too many times, thwarting an opportunity to capture the dream flow of time because it's just another set change. There is a glimmer of what could be mined in a few of the changes, silhouettes and dream figures appear, signaling through the wonderful set-change music—was that the Feelies in the second act, by the way? But until there are fewer of them and they are elaborated more thoroughly into the action, will Monuments' long first act live up to its astounding second.

Hopefully, STAGES will mount the play for a third time in ten or twenty years. I'd go see it in a heartbeat.

Monuments plays at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Through Sept. 11.

Lisa Black proofreads the dead-tree edition of the Weekly, and writes culture stories for her column Paint It Black.

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